Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup
Talking with Mark Haskell Smith
Mark Haskell Smith is my friend. I might as well put that on the table from the outset, since it’s the reason we first thought to do this interview. We teach together, and we also like to hang out and talk about books and writing, usually over a couple of beers. So with Mark’s fifth novel, Raw: A Love Story (Grove Black Cat, December 2013)—he is also the author of a nonfiction book, Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup — we decided to sit down in my living room with a six-pack and a digital recorder and see which way the conversation went.
— David L. Ulin
THE BELIEVER: Raw is a satire of literary culture. One of the central characters is a blogger named Harriet Post who is—how shall we put it? Let’s call her an elitist with a heart of gold.
Mark Haskell Smith: When I wrote the first draft, Harriet was much more horrible, a pretentious snob. But as the book grew, I liked her more. She became the protagonist of the story and then I started to care for her, so I softened her a little bit. She’s still a crusty critic, though.
BLVR: She’s got an edge, certainly, although she softens as the book progresses. She becomes more three-dimensional.
MHS: Well, she starts having sex, which is another thing I wanted. In our culture, we have smart people and then we have the hot people. And the hot people have all the sex, and the smart people don’t. I wanted to show that smart people can have sex, too; they just have to meet the right people. And also that maybe the hot people could learn how to read.
BLVR: Did you start with the idea of writing about Harriet? Raw has its fun with literary elitism, but it also takes on reality TV, blogging, ghostwriting, love…
MHS: I wanted a kind of classic Harlequin romance set-up: opposites attract, like the brainy librarian and the hunky gardener. I was just having fun with it. Then as the book evolved, I started getting interested in reality TV. I’m fascinated because… say you’re a bartended in Omaha, Nebraska. And you get on this TV show, and all of a sudden you’re famous, but you’re famous for your worst behavior. Your worst behavior is encouraged. That’s what you’re known for, so what do you do when you’re not on the show anymore?
BLVR: There’s no line between private and public, which is a problem. That’s what happens with the character of Sepp, the reality star who is Harriet’s foil.
MHS: Yeah, you’re always playing that part. You’re encouraged to. I talked to people who work in reality TV, and got behind the scenes stuff about how they’re sleep-depriving these people and then lying to them, saying, “So and so said this about you.” To provoke a scene. You know: “Okay, roll cameras. They’re going to fight.”
BLVR: So you did some research for the book. Do you often do that for your novels?
MHS: I generally do research. For this one, I watched a lot of reality TV. I watched whole seasons of Jersey Shore. I like to do research because you want your books, whether they’re about Hawaii or about the cannabis world or Thailand, you want somebody who’s been there to read it and say, “Oh yeah, you got that right.” Because once they say, “That’s bullshit,” they’re out of the book. And it’s not that hard to do a little research. You find details that enrich your story.
BLVR: In Raw, as in a lot of your novels, you put people into situations that get out of control.
MHS: Right. It’s that pressure cooker as transcendence sort of thing. I like that. I like books with smart people in trouble.
Question: I know this is supposed to be a question, but I finished reading RAW at the end of the last year. I had received it as a present from my girlfriend who knows I love your books. I had never ever read a book so damn fast, it took me a day to finish RAW. Definitely didn't disappoint, can't wait for your next release!!! You sir know how to write a story!!!! Still can't get over how good RAW was!!!
Thanks for the kind words. You just made my day! The next book is another non-fiction kind of like Heart of Dankness but about the world of nudism. It’s pretty funny. (I hope.)
Thanks again! Tell your friends!
Fame, celebrity, reality TV, bestsellers, Twitter-obsessed book bloggers, and really fantastic abs | Which Way L.A.?
I’m interviewed about my new novel by Lisa Napoli on KCRW!
People don’t think it gets cold in California, but it does. Not like -20 cold, but it does get cold. And cold weather is the perfect time to curl up with an adventure – which is why I was so delighted to run across Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw &
Hempista.com, one of my favorite cannabis-centric websites, has just published a spa and beauty book with recipes for lotions, wraps, and other magical cannabis potions. Check it out!